Careers

The Pepper and the Friendship that Endured Beyond War

George was cold. Actually, “cold” doesn’t begin to describe it. He was freezing. He was learning the hard way that although the desert is famously hot during the day, the nighttime conditions can be dramatically different. On top of the bitter cold, he was wounded, and he was unable to leave his position to find warmer shelter.

He wasn’t the only one who was suffering. All around him, men were experiencing dire conditions. All things considered, George felt that he shouldn’t be complaining. All around him, men were suffering grievous injuries from the recent battle.

As he curled up, wrapping his arms around his legs, he shivered uncontrollably, when he heard Sam’s voice, asking how he was doing. Of course, Sam would be concerned. Their paths began to cross at West Point. George was beginning at the military academy just as Sam was graduating. It was the act of serving together in combat that cemented their friendship, however.

George responded to Sam’s inquiry through chattering teeth.“I’m about to fr-fr-fr-freeze to d-d-d-death,” he said. Sam told him not to worry; he would find something to help him.

A few moments later, Sam was back. George looked up, expectantly, hoping to see his friend carrying a blanket or a warmer coat. Instead, George felt Sam thrust something into his hand. “Eat this,” urged Sam. “It will be as good as a stove inside you.” George looked at the item and saw that it was a small pepper. Dubiously, he put it in his mouth and started to chew. Sure enough, Sam’s words were prophetic, and the cold fled George’s body as his mouth imbibed the pepper’s powerful capsaicin.

George never forgot this act of kindness, even though he and Sam ended up following dramatically different paths. Sam left the Army a short time after the incident under a cloud of accusations about drunkenness. George, in contrast, recovered from his injuries and continued his distinguished military career.

Ulysses S. Grant and George Pickett
Sam (left) and George (right)

That’s not to say that was the last the two men saw of each other, or the last time Sam would come to George’s rescue. Eighteen years after Sam and a hot pepper saved George from freezing to death, they saw each other again. Once more, it was on the heels of a great battle, and once again, they were both in uniform. This time, however, the uniforms were for different sides.

George, who had risen through the ranks in the U.S. Army left that behind to join the Confederate States of America. Under its flag, General George Pickett gained fame for his victories and his defeats. His path led him to Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. There, as one of General Robert E. Lee’s officers, his military career came to an end when Lee surrendered his forces, effectively bringing an end to the U.S. Civil War.

Sam, as you may have guessed, was there, too. Although he left the Army under dubious circumstances, he re-enlisted when the Civil War began. He, too, was present at Appomattox Court House that day in 1865. History does not record what, if any, words were spoken between the two men, or if their thoughts turned back to that day at the Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican War.

As previously mentioned, there was one more time when Sam helped George. When the Civil War started to go poorly for the South, George dealt with the ever-growing problem of deserters. He decided to send a powerful message to anyone who would consider abandoning their duties. He rounded up seventy men who were caught in the act of deserting, and in a public ceremony, he had them all executed.

The decision was poorly received. If he had hoped to bolster the courage of his men, what he accomplished was the further decline of morale. This act would haunt him for the rest of the war and beyond. Although there was a general amnesty for soldiers of the Confederacy once the war was over, George feared that he would be prosecuted for war crimes because of the execution of the deserters. Out of fear for his life, he fled to Canada.

It was his old friend Sam who interceded on his behalf. He managed to gain some influence because of his performance for the Union during the war. When he spoke out on George’s behalf, all prosecution efforts were dropped, and George was able to return to Virginia in 1866. He spent his remaining years trying to earn a living through farming and selling insurance. His later years never attained the glory or fame of his youth, but thanks to Sam, he was able to live out his final years at home and among family. He died in July 1875.

When George died, there was little fanfare. Few outside of his immediate circle of friends and family paid attention to it. Despite the early promise of his life, he died in relative obscurity. It was one of those weird twists of fate, however, that caused the opposite to happen to Sam.

Sam and George started off wearing the same uniform. It was George who came to be remembered for wearing a different uniform, but it was Sam who would be remembered under a different name. “Sam” was really just a nickname, anyway. His name at birth was Hiram, but he wouldn’t be remembered for that name, either. When he enrolled at West Point, a clerical error in the paperwork mistakingly listed his middle name as his first name and inexplicably said that his middle initial was “S.” His classmates decided that letter should stand for “Sam,” and that was how he got the nickname by which he was known by his friends.

Sam was just fine with this new identity. He never really cared for his name before. As he was christened, his initials spelled out H.U.G. He had been teased relentlessly about that all his life. Thanks to the clerical error, his first and middle initials became “U.S.” — a much-preferable and patriotic way for him to begin his military career. It was also a great way to launch a political career.

Perhaps one reason that history does not record any exchange between Sam and George at Appomattox Court House was that everyone’s attention was on Sam’s interaction with George’s commanding officer. And while few people were thinking about George on the day he died at his modest home, it was Sam whose name and actions were filling newspaper headlines all over the country while he lived in the most famous house in America. Of course, by this time, hardly anyone called him Sam. He was now known officially by the name that had been mistakenly given to him at West Point: Ulysses S. Grant.


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